There's something different happening at Arizona State's spring practices this year, and it's not just the appearance of new faces on the defensive side of the football.
The Sun Devils have devoted a significant amount of time at each practice to honing the fundamentals of special teams play, and lately, it looks like it's paying off.
In the fall, special teams periods were met with coaching corrections and short, wobbly punts, but that's no longer the case. Throughout the spring, footballs have been soaring through the air during punting drills, all courtesy of soon-to-be sophomore Matt Haack.
In 2013, Haack and his fellow punters combined to net just 33.2 yards per punt, which left Arizona State ranking 119th out of 123 FBS teams in that category. Haack received 16 opportunities to launch the football, but averaged just 38.3 yards per punt and lost his duties to kickoff specialist Alex Garoutte.
Haack's emergence this spring isn't difficult to trace, as Arizona State added assistant coach Keith Patterson to the staff to help monitor and reduce the recent special teams woes. Head coach Todd Graham says Patterson studied the Sun Devils' punting unit, and determined that the punters weren't the only players responsible for the short kicks.
"I think Coach Patterson, to be real honest with you, he researched it, we looked at it, he was a punter, he coaches the punter and the snapper and said, ‘Hey, 90 percent of your problem were the snaps," Graham said. "The kicker wasn't able to kick in rhythm and on time."
If the rhythm of the snap was holding Haack back, so too was his rhythm during practice. Graham admits that his leash on a freshman punter was a bit short, and that he didn't give Haack the chance to consistently develop his craft. Adjusting to new long snappers and protection units takes time, and in his first spring with the program, Haack is coming into his own.
"I think just reps, I think I made a mistake last year," Graham said. "If we would have left Matt (Haack) in there and let him punt every snap I think we'd be a lot better off than where we're at right now."
What made Graham impatient last season? College football coaches are always pressed to find immediate production, and if something isn't working, then it's up to the men in charge to find a solution. When Alex Garoutte demonstrated a powerful leg on kickoffs, it's easy to see why Graham turned to Garoutte to see if his success could translate into a rugby-style punt.
The Sun Devil coach was also jaded by the performance of his punter during his first season in Tempe. When Graham arrived, incumbent punter and outstanding athlete Josh Hubner was athletic enough to turn any snap into a successful kick, and his 47.1 yards per punt average in 2012 helps prove Graham's point.
"When we had Josh (Hubner), Josh was just so experienced that he could catch it wherever it was at and he could catch it and be in rhythm," Graham said. "So we've got him (Haack) in rhythm, even though we have to speed up that operational time but that's been a very big positive."
With Haack delivering promising punts this spring, the Sun Devils appear poised to make improvements on their coverage unit. Quite simply, everyone in the program knows it's time, and that there is nowhere to go but up.
As Matt Haack settles into his punting role, Alex Garoutte is regaining his strength as the Sun Devils' kickoff specialist. As Graham notes, Garoutte excelled in this spot last season, until he had to step in and man the punter duties as well.
At Tuesday's practice, Garoutte boomed the football with excellent hang time on his kicks, and that allowed the coaching staff to work with the coverage unit on finding ways to pin returners deep.
"When Alex (Garoutte) is not punting and he can focus on kickoffs, early in the year last year he was kicking them all out of the end zone, you know four out of five out of the end zone," Graham said.
Garoutte's kicks tailed off to the left side of the end zone, which played right into a number of familiar faces working in coverage lanes on that side of the field. Laiu Moeakiola, D.J. Calhoun, Antonio Longino and Marcus Washington aligned to Garoutte's left on Tuesday which would give those players the first crack at shutting down openings.
On the contain side of the field, special teams stalwart De'Marieya Nelson, Ezekiel Bishop, Jordan Simone, Lloyd Carrington, James Johnson and D.J. Foster patrolled the edge.
After practice, Graham said that Alex Garoutte is as good of a kickoff guy as a team can have, and that he's excited about getting him back to focus on his natural spot.
Special Teams Notes
- The Sun Devils have a lot riding on successful snaps, and Graham is pleased with the competition he's seen at long snapper. Graham praised Donnie Shields for the competition he's developed with Easton Wahlstrom, but based on some of their reps from Tuesday's practice, both players need to work on the speed with which they get the ball back to the punter.
- Zane Gonzalez continued to struggle this spring and missed two field goal attempts on Tuesday. One of his kicks missed wide right, and the other was blocked. Gonzalez went 7-10 on Saturday inside Sun Devil Stadium, and that's where the team would rather see him succeed, anyway.
- Jaxon Hood joined Christian Westerman and Jamil Douglas on the second line of punt protection immediately in front of Haack. Hood stepped in for Marcus Hardison who held down that spot for most of the spring.
- Damarious Randall and Lloyd Carrington lined up as the gunners on the punt coverage team with Jordan Simone and Laiu Moeakiola aligned inside of them. Expect all four players to see playing time on a variety of special teams this fall.
- Graham said that "every star offensive player we have" will get a chance to earn a spot on the punt and kick block teams. So far this spring, the field goal block unit has gelled nicely.